DATE August 18, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Mike Stanton on his new book "The Prince of Providence"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in this week for Terry Gross.
Not many politicians would be re-elected after enduring a series of corruption
scandals and pleading guilty to felony assault with a lighted cigarette, but
former Providence, Rhode Island, mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci is no ordinary
politician. Always colorful and media-friendly, Cianci presided over a widely
acclaimed revival of downtown Providence. But his return to office in the
1990s ended with his conviction two years ago on racketeering and corruption
charges. In true Cianci form, his departure to prison was marked by a live
interview on the "Today" show. His story is now celebrated in a sold-out
musical at the New York International Fringe Festival.
Our guest today is journalist Mike Stanton, whose new book, "The Prince of
Providence," chronicles Cianci's political career. Stanton heads the
investigative reporting team at the Providence Journal, where he shared the
1994 Pulitzer Prize for exposing corruption in the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
If Buddy Cianci were to walk in here and sit down and chat with us, would we
suspect we're talking to somebody who's been convicted both of assault and
Mr. MIKE STANTON (Providence Journal; Author, "The Prince of Providence"):
No, not at all. He's a charming rogue and one of the great American political
characters you'll find on any stage. And he's the kind of guy who, when he
was sentenced to prison last year, referred to it as a very, very inexpensive
spa. So he finds the humor in anything in life, and we like to say here in
Providence, `There's a fine line between crime and comedy,' and Buddy
straddled that line for three decades.
DAVIES: You know, Providence was, of course, an aging industrial city, and we
think of those kinds of places as producing the old urban boss, I mean, the
political bosses, the ward heelers, but was not of that background, right?
Mr. STANTON: No.
DAVIES: He grew up in relative privilege, didn't he?
DAVIES: He did. Buddy is really a kind of an amalgamation of the old and the
new Providence, and that's one of the things that makes him so fascinating as
a reflection of this diverse city. He came of age as an Italian-American who
fought the Irish Democratic machine that had run Providence for decades. And
of course, he forged his own machine when he came to power. And he grew up
privileged. He was the son of a doctor, grandson of an immigrant carpenter
who had lived in the blue-collar Silver Lake neighborhood, that lived up the
hill in a nice house and a swimming pool and went to a private prep school on
the east side of Providence, near Brown University, where the old Yankee
families live. And he really straddled the different fiefdoms of Providence,
the old Italian ward bosses, the Irish pols and then the Yankee patricians up
on the east side.
DAVIES: And he was a prosecutor, right? I mean, pursuing the mob of all
Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm. Yes, Buddy Cianci was a mob prosecutor in the attorney
general's office. That's his first public service. And I like to say in the
book that before Buddy Cianci owned Providence, it belonged to Raymond
Patriarca, who is a legendary boss of the New England mafia, a man whose
associations in organized crime extended to Meyer Lansky, Jimmy Hoffa, the
five families in New York, and whose career went back to prohibition days.
And the Providence the Buddy Cianci came of age in as a boy was really
Patriarca's town. It was this wide open Damon Runyan world of gangsters and
prize fighters, bookies and dice games and mob shootings up on Federal Hill,
the old Italian neighborhood. And Cianci used to go to dinner at the old
canteen of an Old World elegant restaurant next to Patriarca's Coin-O-Matic
vending machine headquarters. And later, as a young prosecutor, Patriarca had
ordered the hit of two bookies in a meat market near where Cianci grew up.
And Cianci became a prosecutor who helped prosecute Patriarca for ordering
DAVIES: His first tenure in office was marked by a lot of corruption, and
there was a major federal investigation under way, but the whole thing was
short-circuited by this astonishing episode involving him and a man who he
accused of having an affair with his estranged wife. This was Ray DiMayo, who
wasn't really interested in making this public, right?
Mr. STANTON: Raymond De Leo.
DAVIES: OK. Raymond De Leo. Yeah, tell us that story.
Mr. STANTON: What happened leading up to this was that Cianci was a man who
was really married to Providence, and he had a very tempestuous, you know,
love life. And he probably wasn't the marrying kind. He got married. He had
a child. The marriage was a difficult one. It had been pretty much over for
about a year, and they had signed a separation agreement. And then about a
year later, they had filed for final divorce papers. And a few days later,
Cianci hears rumors that this contractor had been having an affair with his
wife. Cianci, who had admitted his own infidelities, nonetheless is
heartbroken and angry and enraged and also thinking about the money that this
divorce cost him. And in this mood, he's kind of sullen and brooding and
sitting in his house on Power Street, an old mansion owned by an old textile
baron. And he summons this man to his carriage house on a Sunday evening.
His police bodyguard with his gun in the holster is standing by. And he
proceeds to torture Mr. De Leo for the next three hours. He punches him and
slaps him and throws liquor on him. He threatens to have him killed if he
doesn't pay him $500,000, and that he'll be D-E-D. And then he sticks a lit
DAVIES: D-E-D meaning the misspelling of `dead?'
Mr. STANTON: Yes, the misspelling of dead. That's how he spelled it. And
then he sticks a lit cigarette in the man's eye. The man flinches. It singes
his eyebrow. He later throws an ashtray at him, although that doesn't
connect. And he, at one point, raises a fireplace log above De Leo's head as
if to strike him, but another city official who was there and witness to this
did jump up and help De Leo deflect the blow.
DAVIES: Now let's get this straight here. We have a gentleman who is
summoned to the mayor's house on a Sunday night...
Mr. STANTON: Correct.
DAVIES: ...is ushered to his living room and is held captive for three hours
while the mayor engages in this violent raging conduct?
Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm. That's correct.
DAVIES: As you tell the story, De Leo seems utterly shocked by this. And I
get the impression you believe that he was not having an affair with his wife.
Mr. STANTON: Well, I found two schools of thought on that, one that he was,
one that he wasn't. The prosecutors who later pursued the case felt that it
didn't matter, because Cianci had signed a separation agreement a year
earlier, agreeing that he and his wife could see other people as they pleased.
And Cianci, himself, admitted infidelities. And obviously Cianci's side saw
it differently, that that was going to be a major issue in winning over the
jury's sympathy had it gone to trial. However, he decided to plead out, and
that forced him to resign after his first 10 years in office in 1984.
DAVIES: All right. So this assault ended his term as mayor, but there was a
major federal corruption investigation which yielded some results which were
pretty striking also, right?
Mr. STANTON: Correct. Well, as I write in the book, Cianci left city hall
with, you know, a trail of tears and a posse of lawmen at his heels. There
were armed state troopers outside to safeguard against records being taken out
of city hall. There were people sobbing in the stairwells as he delivered his
farewell address, televised live across the state on all three television
stations. And those corruption investigations later yielded 22 convictions.
Several of his top people went to prison. It never reached his level, but the
top people couldn't be persuaded to cooperate in a timely fashion, and the
cases petered out. Cianci, of course, went on to become a popular talk show
host, and people remembered, not only his dark side, but all the good things
that he had done for the city, you know, the cheerleader aspect of breathing
new life into this dying factory town. And in 1990, he completes an
improbable comeback with the slogan he never stopped caring. And he's
re-elected mayor again.
DAVIES: And what kind of mayor was he the second time?
Mr. STANTON: Well, he was given a second chance, and he vowed to take
advantage of that and surround himself with better people. And for the first
six or seven years, it seemed that that had been the case. Providence
underwent a tremendous national renaissance. Its waterfront had been
restored. There were Waterfire exhibits which became internationally
acclaimed. Restaurants were judged by Food & Wine to be better than Boston's.
It became a tourist Mecca. Money magazine and array of others called it one
of America's most livable cities. And Cianci was the cheerleader of this. He
was in Hollywood. He was on Broadway. He was on the "Imus" show. He popped
up as, you know, a guest star in the television series "Providence" on NBC,
which became a hit. And he was the maestro of the renaissance. He mingled
with Anthony Quinn, the actor, who moved here. They became good friends. And
Cianci endured this ...(unintelligible) of the mayor lifestyle, as I call it.
He'd be squired around the city in his limousine with a police driver and a
case of his own marinara sauce and keys to the city and a shotgun in the
DAVIES: Literally a shotgun in the trunk?
Mr. STANTON: Sometimes, yes. And a fire hat, too, because the mayor liked to
show up at fires. This is the mayor that said he would show up at the opening
of an envelope.
DAVIES: He would also show up when rock stars performed, and liked to meet
Mr. STANTON: Yes. And even when Cianci was menacing, he could be funny, and
people just couldn't help shake their heads at his antics, such as the night
that Bob Dylan came to town in the mid-'90s, and he was performing at a local
nightclub. And Cianci and his entourage sweep in, and the mayor sends back
word that he'd like to meet Dylan after the show. Dylan's manager says Dylan
only meets, you know, very few people. The only people he's met in the last
few years are the prime minister of Israel and President Clinton. Cianci, of
course, doesn't take no for an answer, storms backstage with his entourage.
The tour manager says, `Who do you think you are, coming on my stage?' And
Cianci very matter of factly sticks out his hand and says, `I'll tell you who
I am. I'm the mayor of this town. See those tour buses out there? I'm the
guy that can make sure the police don't search them in the next few hours.'
And lo and behold, Cianci gets to meet Dylan.
DAVIES: Right this way, mayor.
Mr. STANTON: That's right.
DAVIES: You also tell an interesting tale of him visiting a restaurant,
Amsterdam's Rotisserie, and the one time that an ill-informed bouncer didn't
realize he was to seat the mayor immediately.
Mr. STANTON: That's right. The mayor was asked to pay a $2 cover charge at
this very popular and trendy restaurant. This was at the end of his first
year back in office in 1991. And so the mayor was very unhappy, and he left
and said, `I'm the mayor of Providence here.' And a short time later, the
city fire marshal pulls up in a big red van accompanied by a fire truck with
its lights flashing, and the restaurant is closed down for overcrowding, and
its temporary entertainment license suspended. So on the advice of a patron
who worked for city hall, the owner, who I talked to for the book, went to see
the mayor and to make peace a few days later. He makes an appointment. He's
kept waiting most of the day. Finally, he's shown into the mayor's office,
and Cianci proceeds to hector him and tell him that they were over the legal
occupancy limit. The owner respectfully disagrees. Cianci adds, `Well, I
happen to know you're selling illegal drugs in that club.' And the owner is
terrified. He says it's not so. And Cianci finally comes in with the line,
`Well, you don't want to get into a pissing match with me, because you're a
cup of water, and I'm Niagara Falls.' And the nightclub owner respectfully
backs down. He later, on the advice of his city hall patron, makes a
contribution to the mayor's campaign and reopens.
DAVIES: Now here's what's interesting. You have a mayor here who's known for
shepherding in this nationally recognized renaissance of this inner city, and
that means working with businesses, getting them in, selling the city, selling
yourself, and then he turns around and bullies exactly such a businessperson
on some fit of personal pique. I mean, didn't he realize he was undercutting
his own efforts to develop a city?
Mr. STANTON: Well, that's the paradox of Buddy Cianci. He couldn't help
himself, and he could be very charming and charismatic when he wanted to be,
and then there were these dark rages that consumed him. And people just kind
of said, `Well, that's Buddy being Buddy. He may be a bully, but he's our
bully, and he stands up for Providence, and he puts us in the limelight, and
so we'll tolerate him, you know, idiosyncrasies and all.'
DAVIES: My guest is journalist Mike Stanton, author of "The Prince of
Providence." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Our guest is journalist Mike Stanton. He's the author of "The Prince
of Providence," about Providence, Rhode Island's, corrupt former mayor, Buddy
Buddy was a pretty heavy drinker. That was widely known, right?
Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm. He used to travel around with a to-go cup. And he told
aides that he liked to drink vodka during a campaign, because the voters
couldn't smell it on his breath. And he had an amazing fortitude.
DAVIES: Is it true he wore pancake makeup on ordinary days?
Mr. STANTON: He did. He was a showman. Well, there was no such thing as an
ordinary day if you're Buddy Cianci. You were always in front of the
television cameras. You were always on stage, and he wore pancake makeup. He
was also celebrated in Providence for his toupees, and he called it hair
helper, and that was a big part of his persona.
DAVIES: You mentioned that he had toupees, plural. Why more than one? Did
they have different looks?
Mr. STANTON: They had different looks, and they evolved over time. You know,
as his trial approached and he became older--he was in his early 60s, he kind
of started wearing a more grayish toupee rather than the black toupees he was
worn. You know, as the real hair on the side of his head would grow out, he'd
have a longer toupee to match that on top. He had a swirly salt and pepper
toupee that his aides called the tousled piece, and he's wear that to
blizzards and fires and crime scenes. And interestingly--I was fascinated by
this--his hair began life on the head of Chinese peasant women halfway around
the world. And they would wrap their head to keep it from oxidizing in the
sun, and they would later cut it and sell it to wig makers. And his wig would
be sent up to an exclusive hair salon on the east side, and the workers there
called it BIB for Buddy in a box.
DAVIES: Now the federal investigation that eventually sent him to prison
didn't come from a tip, right? There was an FBI agent who knew all about
Providence, that came back and decided that this was an area that needed to be
Mr. STANTON: Yes. Dennis Aiken was an FBI agent, a native of Mississippi,
but along the way, he'd married a woman from Rhode Island. He missed being on
the street, and he took advantage of an initiative in the mid-'90s to get
agents back on the street, and he came back to Providence. And the
renaissance was in full flower then. And as I write it in the beginning of
the book, his continuing digging into Providence's past finds him on Buddy
Cianci's doorstep one morning in the spring of 1998 just as Cianci is being
touted as the renaissance mayor and about to become the city's longest-serving
mayor in history. And at that moment, Aiken has a tape recorder, and 50 FBI
agents are about to fan out across Providence to arrest a couple of tax
officials and raid city hall and seize records for an undercover investigation
that Aiken had launched a year earlier with the help of a city businessman who
wore a wire into Cianci's city hall and documented payoffs on audio and
DAVIES: And in the end, I mean, the case against a lot of his subordinates
was very strong. The case against him was a bit more of a reach. It was
Mr. STANTON: Well, the irony of this case is that Cianci's life has come full
circle. He goes from being the organized crime prosecutor to being prosecuted
under the RICO law that had been written back in the '60s to catch the Raymond
Patriarcas of the world. He is accused of being a Tony Soprano-like boss at
city hall, of insulating himself through underlings of actually taking
payoffs. And his top aide is convicted, caught on tape, and others testify to
meetings that they had with the mayor in which he talked about bribes and
other corrupt schemes.
DAVIES: He was also accused of bearing a grudge against an exclusive club
that had refused to admit him. Tell us about that.
Mr. STANTON: Yes. The University Club was an old elite club up on the east
side of Providence, in an old mansion on the side of an old Indian burial
ground, said to be haunted by ghosts. And it was a club of the city's movers
and shakers, and it really reflected the different ethnic, you know, divisions
and tribal politics of Providence. And Cianci's own insecurities--remember,
this is a man who grew up neither quite Italian blue-collar nor, you know,
accepted by the Yankees on the east side. And he harbored this grudge
throughout his life, and this insecurity, this need to be accepted. And he
would rail against the old Yankee monied families as members of the lucky
sperm club, another of his pet phrases. And so when this University Club back
in the '70s had refused to admit him, it was not because the Yankees were
discriminating against the Italians. It was because there was actually an
Italian-American member who had been aligned with the old Irish mayor, Joe
Doorley, and didn't want him in. It was politics.
In any event, Cianci is denied admission. Years pass. He harbors the grudge.
In the late '90s, the club is renovating. Its historic mansion needs permits
from the city. Cianci orders city building officials to block the permit,
shut the club down, drive it out of business essentially. And club members go
to Cianci and plead with him and try to get him to reverse his decision. And
his vindictiveness comes out. He rails at them for rejecting him years
earlier. He says what could pass as a proverb in Providence. He says,
`Remember, the toe you stepped on today could be connected to the ass you have
to kiss tomorrow.' And ultimately the club grants him an honorary lifetime
membership, and is allowed to get its permits and reopen.
DAVIES: So what did the jury do when they weighed all of this evidence
against Buddy Cianci?
Mr. STANTON: Well, this was another piece of the case that basically he was
charged with extorting this membership. And the jurors went back and forth on
that. A key piece of evidence in this case is a city building official, after
the investigation begins, cooperates with the FBI, says that the mayor told
him to block the club. But worse, he says that the mayor told him to lie to
the grand jury about what really happened. And he tapes two phone calls with
the mayor in which the mayor basically tells him not to cooperate and says,
`Don't be a volunteer for the US government.' And that tape, according to the
jurors that I interviewed, proved very damning in contributing to his ultimate
conviction for racketeering conspiracy.
DAVIES: Let's listen to one of the phone conversations that were used as
evidence in Cianci's trial. A city building official, Steve Antonson, was
secretly cooperating with the FBI, and he recorded this phone call with the
mayor. Cianci is coaching Antonson here on his upcoming testimony before the
(Soundbite of recording)
Mr. VINCENT "BUDDY" CIANCI (Former Mayor, Providence): There's
absolutely--you know, you have nothing to be concerned about.
Mr. STEVE ANTONSON (FBI Informant): No.
Mr. CIANCI: You're not a target or a suspect or anything like that.
Mr. ANTONSON: No.
Mr. CIANCI: What did you do? You just went--you're the one that always told
me, `Safety, safety, safety.'
Mr. ANTONSON: That's right.
Mr. CIANCI: What are you, losing your balls now?
Mr. ANTONSON: No, I'm not.
Mr. CIANCI: Oh.
Mr. ANTONSON: No, I'm totally agreeing with you.
Mr. CIANCI: Don't let those guys intimidate you. Don't be a volunteer for
the US government.
Mr. ANTONSON: No, I'm not.
Mr. CIANCI: Yeah. I mean, I don't know who they think they are.
Mr. ANTONSON: I'm just saying...
Mr. CIANCI: They're trying to put words in your mouth. Did you vote the way
you were supposed to vote in your own heart and mind?
Mr. ANTONSON: Yes, of course I did.
Mr. CIANCI: OK. Did anybody tell you to vote that way?
Mr. ANTONSON: No, because I voted on them issues on my belief of safety
Mr. CIANCI: That's right. And would you want your mother or your father or
your--somebody who's disabled to go down that elevator with a non-fire-rated
Mr. ANTONSON: Not at all. That's why I voted that way.
Mr. CIANCI: That's what you told me after I talked to you.
Mr. ANTONSON: Yeah. It's safety issues.
Mr. CIANCI: Yeah. See, they don't know what they're talking about. They're
not engineers. They're not electricians.
Mr. ANTONSON: No.
Mr. CIANCI: They're not firepeople. Yeah, so don't let them intimidate you.
Mr. ANTONSON: All right.
Mr. CIANCI: You know, there's nothing that they can intimidate you for.
You're on the board.
Mr. ANTONSON: Yeah. Yeah. No, I just didn't know how these people operate.
Mr. CIANCI: They operate with great deceit...
Mr. ANTONSON: All right.
Mr. CIANCI: ...and great trickery, OK?
Mr. ANTONSON: No problem.
Mr. CIANCI: Yeah. And I'll tell you. I don't know what you're going to say,
but if I ever talk, I'm telling you what I'm saying, 'cause it's the truth.
I'm not lying. I never talked to you before any meetings.
Mr. ANTONSON: All right.
Mr. CIANCI: And afterwards, I'm going to discuss it, but not before you
voted. And by the way, even if I did, there'd be nothing wrong with it.
Mr. ANTONSON: All right. No, you're the boss anyhow. ...(Unintelligible).
Mr. CIANCI: No, I'm not the boss. I just appoint you to the job.
Mr. ANTONSON: Right.
Mr. CIANCI: You're the boss.
Mr. ANTONSON: Right, yeah.
DAVIES: That's an FBI recording from a sting operation used in the case
against Mayor Buddy Cianci in the corruption trial that ended with his
conviction. My guest is Mike Stanton, author of "The Prince of Providence."
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Coming up, more with Mike Stanton about Buddy Cianci, the popular but
corrupt former mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, now serving time for
racketeering. Also, we go ringside with writer Carlo Rotella. He explores
the world of boxing for his new book, "Cut Time: An Education at the Fights."
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies of the Philadelphia Daily News,
sitting in for Terry Gross.
Let's get back to our interview with Mike Stanton, author of "The Prince of
Providence." The book chronicles the life of former Providence mayor Buddy
Cianci, who pleaded guilty to assault in the 1980s and was convicted of
racketeering and corruption two years ago.
He is convicted and leaves, but amidst a lot of color, right? He ends up
doing radio stints with "Imus in the Morning" throughout all of this, right?
And he never quits talking.
Mr. MIKE STANTON ("The Prince of Providence"): He does. He does. And
ironically I think the judge, Judge Ernest Torres, who sentenced him to five
years in federal prison, where he is now, at his sentencing last fall said
that, `You are the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You're the Buddy Cianci
of the glittering renaissance, and you're the other Buddy Cianci of payoffs
and cash in envelopes and that's the Buddy Cianci I'm here to sentence today,
because the first Buddy Cianci would not be here.'
And a few weeks later the mayor was talking privately to someone, as I put in
the book, and calls him up, and the mayor's talking about what the judge had
said, and he says, `Hmm,' and you know, he makes an obscene description of the
judge, and says, `Well, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, well how come I didn't get
two F'ing paychecks?'
DAVIES: Never short for a one-liner.
Mr. STANTON: Never short for a one-liner.
But clearly, I mean, the tragedy behind the comedy here is that here's a man
who obviously he was brooding and, you know, very distraught at what was
happening to his life. I was really struck how in his final months and as his
case ticked down he would sit alone often at the bar in the Biltmore Hotel
late at night drinking, and kind of nursing his old sorrows and grudges. And,
you know, it really struck me at that line from "Death of a Salesman," where
you've got Willy Loman is talking to his son and he talks about how he went up
to Providence and he met the mayor of Providence and the mayor meets him in
the lobby of the hotel and he says, `Mayor, you got a great city here,' and
the mayor says `Well, thank you' and then has a cup of coffee with him. And
that kind of, you know, epitomizes Buddy Cianci, I think.
DAVIES: The guy who's a regular guy who's accessible.
Mr. STANTON: Right.
Mr. STANTON: He's everybody's buddy but nobody's close friend.
DAVIES: Mike Stanton, this is not a flattering book about Buddy Cianci, but I
gotta ask you, do you like the guy?
Mr. STANTON: I do. And I think it's not flattering in the sense that there
is a lot of darkness in his life and there are a lot of demons that come out
in different way that aren't pretty to see, but there's also this ribald, you
know, very charismatic cheerleader aspect of him. And one of my favorite
whimsical stories about Buddy is, you know, here's the man who would take a
live owl from the city zoo and put it on the mantel in his office and be
amused that people didn't realize it was alive. And, you know, he was a very
inspirational guy to a lot of people. And that's why his popularity rating
remained over 60 percent even though half the people thought he was guilty
following his conviction.
DAVIES: Is Providence a duller place without him?
Mr. STANTON: It is a quieter place without him. However, we do have--his
successor is the Jewish-Italian openly gay son of a mob lawyer. So, you know,
we still have things to look forward to here.
DAVIES: You know, cronyism and corruption are features of big-city politics
in America, but the kind of pervasive and brazen corruption that you described
seemed to set Providence apart. Is Providence different? And if so, why?
Mr. STANTON: Well, I think you really have to look at the history of
Providence. It really is a unique place in America. It's a uniquely American
place. I like to say it was America's first safe house, because it was
founded by Roger Williams when he was banished from the Puritan Massachusetts.
It became a haven of tolerance and religious openness. And it also became, a
haven for rogues and rascals. Cotton Mather called it Rogue's isle and the
sewer of New England, the fag end of creation. And it later became a place
for privateers and slave traders and rum-runners and, of course, the mafia.
But it was also a place for visionaries and idealists.
And I think because of that it just always had this tolerance for corruption
and acceptance of it and resignation to it. And also realizing that, you
know, I think it's part of human nature. And they saw Buddy as someone who,
in spite of his flaws, did great things for the city, brought it back to
national prominence, and for that they forgave him his trespasses.
DAVIES: My wife's family comes from Providence, and one of the matriarchs of
the family, Hella Berger(ph), has said often that politicians have been
stealing from us for forever in Providence, Buddy at least got something done.
Mr. STANTON: Exactly.
DAVIES: And you have to marvel at his ability to come back, despite assault
convictions and corruption charges and a whole series of other problems. I
mean, what was it that made him so enduringly popular?
Mr. STANTON: Well, I think it was because he always would show up, and he was
always open to winning over his enemies. And I can remember, you know,
working--I worked at the Providence Journal, which is kind of a historical
foil for the mayor, you know, exposing his various antics. And yet, you know,
he would clash with the newspaper. He would threaten to rename the street the
newspaper's on `Cianci Way,' so we'd have to buy all new stationery. And yet
I can remember being at a reporter's house for a party on a Saturday night,
and Buddy shows up and he's the last guy to leave. And...
DAVIES: He just shows up?
Mr. STANTON: He just shows up, and that's--one thing I learned about Cianci,
in writing this book, was half of life is showing up. And Cianci did it night
in and night out, day in and day out, you know, for years and years and years.
And people remember that personal touch more than they remember some of the
scandalous headlines or outrageous behavior.
DAVIES: Have you talked to him in prison? How's he doing?
Mr. STANTON: I have not talked to him. He's kept a low profile with the
media. But from people who have talked to him, both sides of Buddy on
apparent on given days. He's hopeful for his appeal, he's resigned to doing
his sentence and losing the appeal. He was working in the kitchen, which was
hard work. He's recently moved to the prison library.
DAVIES: Mike Stanton, thanks very much for talking with us.
Mr. STANTON: Well, thanks, Dave. I appreciate it.
DAVIES: Mike Stanton. His book about Buddy Cianci, the former mayor of
Providence, Rhode Island, is called "The Prince of Providence."
Coming up, what makes a boxer keep fighting even when he keeps losing? We'll
talk with Carlo Rotella about his new book "Cut Time."
This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Carlo Rotella on his new book about the culture of
DAVE DAVIES, host:
From the world of literary academia comes an insightful look at the culture of
professional boxing. Carlo Rotella, an English professor at Boston
University, has just written "Cut Time: An Education at the Fights." Rotella
finds both savagery and art in the fight world, and he believes careful study
of its craft and characters holds valuable lessons for life outside the ring.
Rotella takes readers to a variety of scenes in boxing: an aging trainer
telling stories in a gym; an over-the-hill puncher scrapping on a Saturday
night in Allentown, Pennsylvania; and an intimate look at the heavyweight
legend Larry Holmes, who, Rotella writes, `lands punches with the straight and
true authority of a master carpenter driving nails.'
Carlo Rotella's writing has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, Harper's
and other publications.
Let's start with a reading from the book.
Professor CARLO ROTELLA (Boston University; Author, "Cut Time"): `In a club
or at the garden, the prefight scene is always fundamentally the same. The
ring girls, in bathing gear and high heels, have draped other people's jackets
around their shoulders to keep warm. Guys in suit and tie from the state
commission walk back and forth with great conviction, glad-handing and trying
to look busy. The referee for the first bout bounces lightly on the ropes to
test the tension, then straightens his bow tie.
My favorite local referee is Eddie Fitzgerald, a smiling gentleman with
flowing white hair who breaks fighters out of a clinch as if making room to
step between them to order a high ball. He taps them briskly on the shoulder
as if to say, "Gentlemen, there's no need to fight." The promoter walks by,
flush and tight, usually managing to make his priciest clothes look like a $40
rental. He stops to rub important people's necks and shoulders. He points
across the room with a wink or a grin to those who don't merit a stop. He
looks over the crowd filling up the hall, pressing in on ringside from all
around. Cornermen and old fighters stand in clusters talking about the time
Bobby D. got head-butted by that animal out of Scranton.
Photographers check their equipment and load film like infantry preparing to
repel an assault. Print and online reporters hang around gossiping. Some of
the deadline writers have plugged in their laptops to begin laying down
DAVIES: Carlo Rotella, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Prof. ROTELLA: Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: People think of boxing as Tyson and Ali and Evander Holyfield, but
your book gives us a look at boxing in small places with small purses. And
you talk about going to Allentown, Pennsylvania, with your student who was
training to be a fighter, and watching a card of bout matches, including a guy
named Art Baylis, who as you describe as `old in fighter years' taking on a
fellow named Exum Speight. What was interesting about that bout to you, and
what you admired in Baylis.
Prof. ROTELLA: Well, Art Baylis is better than what's called an opponent.
That is, he's not expected to lose every fight, but was not a guy who would be
challenging for any significant title or purse ever again in his life. And he
was a guy I'd seen train in the gym, and a professional but in no sense a
celebrity. And that night he was fighting Exum Speight who was a professional
opponent, he was one step below Art Baylis. He was expected to lose but to
put up a good fight. An early in...
DAVIES: When you say a professional opponent, you mean what?
Prof. ROTELLA: I mean, a fighter who is brought in by a promoter, and the
promoter can expect that that guy will be in shape, will look like a fighter,
will put up a good fight, and will probably lose to the hometown favorite. So
an opponent in the sense that he will put up a plausible fight.
So what happened in this fight is that against the, sort of, implicit schedule
of the promoter Exum Speight cut Art Baylis very, very deeply next to his
right eye during the fight, early in the fight. And watching Baylis labor
through this long, long fight with blood pouring down his face and figuring
out a way to win the fight was one of those moments in which you say to
yourself, `There's some lesson inside of this and I'm gonna try to tease it
And, you know, I'm not a deadline writer. I let the fight gestate for months
and sit around and tried various versions of it and try to get at what it was
that makes the fight interesting, or makes the fight a lesson.
DAVIES: And what Art Baylis knew was apart from just dogged persistence,
footwork, defense, what?
Prof. ROTELLA: Well, not only that, but he also knew that he was fighting a
guy who would get tired, who had had a moment early in the fight, and had
actually--what happens sometimes to someone who's expected to lose, when he
does something very good early in the fight, is he gets excited and burns up
too much energy trying to win the fight. Or burns up too much what you might
think of as psychological energy worrying about the possibility of winning
the fight or how deeply he's cut this guy.
And he basically waited Exum Speight out is what he did. And the fact that as
he was waiting him out he was pouring blood sort of super-charges the moment.
But it's really a lesson, in some ways, in patience.
DAVIES: You say that most fights are mismatches. Why's that? I mean, don't
people enjoy even competition?
Prof. ROTELLA: I think they do. I think that there's not that many people
left who would recognize even competition in a boxing match. I think most
fights that you see involve--especially at the lower level, involve a local
fighter matched against an opponent who's brought in to lose the fight. I'm
not saying the fight is fixed, or it's faked, it's that the difference in
ability or in experience is enough that it's pretty certain what's gonna
happen. But to most of the people there, cheering, rooting for their guy,
looking at their guy fighting somebody who's pretty much the same size and
looks muscular and mean too, it looks like a fair fight.
DAVIES: And so the promoters do this. I mean, in effect, they've arranged a
what's likely to be a show, who's outcome is fairly predictable.
Prof. ROTELLA: That's usually true. And, in fact, in the book one promoter
says, `You know what you try to do usually is match a hometown guy with a good
win.' Now there are moments--many moments--at the fights when two fighters do
elicit one another's best work and something unexpected happens. It's just
that those moments are rarer than one would think, and sometimes they're not
as self-evident as one would think. There hasn't been a moment like that in a
Mike Tyson fight in years, whether he was winning or losing. But people will
still expect, somehow, a Tyson fight to be a contest of equals. And he hasn't
been in a contest of equals for years.
DAVIES: Fighters who are professional opponents--that is to say, guys who are
used to being brought in and losing to a hometown favorite--why would you stay
in a game like that?
Prof. ROTELLA: Well, that's a fine question. Fighters will often talk about
money, but if you do a simple calculation of the amount of suffering, pain and
training in relation to the amount of money they're making that's obviously
not a sufficient explanation for what they do.
And neither is, I think, seeking glory or seeking celebrity, even local
celebrity. I think those two in balance with an investment in craft begin to
explain it a little better. That is, an investment in being good at this
extremely difficult and esoteric and challenging thing.
DAVIES: So someone who is a repeat loser, someone who is brought in to be an
opponent to a hometown favorite, is somebody who gets some satisfaction out of
training and knowing the craft even if they lose most of the time?
Prof. ROTELLA: Yeah. I mean, don't forget, that person can beat the tar out
of any athlete in any sport and anybody else on the street. Even the most
abject professional loser is one of the best fighters in town compared to the
general population. And what you find sometimes with professional opponents
is they take a great pride in being able to have this life in which they
travel around, get in fights, lose them, don't get hurt and come home with a
And let's also not forget that before that fight they stage the ring walk with
the music playing and everyone cheering and the lights are on them and it's a
kind of a moment that most people never get to enjoy. And a professional
opponent gets to enjoy or gets to experience every time he loses a fight. In
some ways, it seems to me that it's worth losing the fight to them to have
DAVIES: You spent a lot of time with Larry Holmes because you taught college
in Easton where Larry Holmes is from and current--and owns a gym. He's an
amazing character. I mean, still boxed into his late-40s, even early-50s.
Prof. ROTELLA: Yeah. And still active as we speak and still trying to set up
a fight with George Foreman who is now talking about becoming active again at
the age of 54.
DAVIES: Now why does he keep training so hard and keep coming out of
retirement? What's the lesson there?
Prof. ROTELLA: Well, I dedicate one chapter to trying to figure that out with
him and try to give him a chance to speak his piece at length. He's one of
the better talkers, to my mind, in the fight world. Says what's on his mind
without running it past some sort of internal marketing department first.
And in our conversations he, at first, talks a lot about money, but then works
his way towards other things, like the display of technique and craft. And
below that, below even bringing honor to his family, below the fact that he
grew up poor and really doesn't want to pass up a payday when he knows how to
do this so well, way down there I think is also his place in history. He's
aware that his peers are mostly dead--which is the all-time great heavyweight
champions--and he's thinking about where he's going to fit on the list with
Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano.
DAVIES: And it's interesting that anybody can walk into his gym in Easton
where he is not particularly friendly, you say, to people but will
occasionally bark out an admonition. Like what?
Prof. ROTELLA: Well, usually a profane one, which I can't repeat on the radio,
but usually to a fighter to stop messing around or doing something
unnecessarily flashy and to concentrate on the task at hand, whatever it is.
DAVIES: Those comments that he makes in the gym are to guys off in a corner
who he doesn't even know, but he is offended at their lack of discipline and
devotion to the craft, right?
Prof. ROTELLA: Or if they're doing something slightly wrong. And one of the
stories I tell in the book is there was a girl, a 12-year-old girl, jumping
rope in the gym. And she was doing it wrong--at least Holmes thought she was
doing it wrong--and he gets out of the ring, he goes over, and he jumps rope
for her to show her a better way to do it. And it's a moment that stays with
me because here's this grandfather showing a little girl how to jump rope.
And they're both there with their hands taped trying to do this thing
properly. And the fact that he even saw her, you know, with the eyes in the
back of his head while he was busy doing something else is startling enough.
But then just that image of him saying, `Look, here's how you jump rope,' has
stuck with me.
DAVIES: Our guest is Carlo Rotella. He's the author of "Cut Time: An
Education at the Fights." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: My guest is Carlo Rotella, an English professor at Boston College.
His new book is called "Cut Time: An Education at the Fights." When we left
off, we were talking about former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. Rotella
got to know Holmes at his gym in Easton, Pennsylvania.
You've written about his confrontation with a curiosity, a fighter known as
Butterbean. Tell us about that one.
Prof. ROTELLA: Well, Holmes, as he approached 50 and then passed 50, had the
problem that he could still fight, but he couldn't find anybody worthwhile to
fight. Because anybody who was a champion or a contender or even aspired to
be a contender someday wouldn't go near him because they could only look bad.
If they lose a fight to a 50-year-old man, then that's the end of their
career. And he's still difficult to beat, and you're not going to look good
So he couldn't get fights with people who would represent a good payday, and
then the people who did want to fight him were not prominent enough to get a
good TV contract. So he was stuck. And in that moment Butterbean appeared.
Now Butterbean had come out of the Toughman competitions, he was kind of a TV
celebrity, but not a particularly good boxer. So Butterbean...
DAVIES: Describe it. I mean he was a huge...
Prof. ROTELLA: He's a very wide, short, shaven-headed guy. You know, he's
less than six feet tall and has weighed 300 pounds for a fight. And the big
thrill for people with Butterbean is that he's this big fat guy who apparently
can't be hurt. And has knocked out a series of patsies and opponents in
And as he got a little older, Butterbean started to want legitimacy. And he
was one of the very few professional fighters in the world who stood to gain
credibility by fighting Holmes and could command a pretty good TV contract.
So he finally got Holmes in the ring with him and Holmes won every round and
won an easy decision and walked home with most of the million dollars, which
is a kind of--not only a paycheck that Holmes was not gonna pass up--remember,
this is a guy who grew up eating government cheese--but this is also a chance
to fight in a packed arena in front of thousands of cheering people and to
show that he's a real boxer and has command of his craft in a way that, say,
Butterbean, who's the bigger celebrity at this point, doesn't.
DAVIES: And Butterbean was a massive man, with huge punching power, but
against a guy who knew what he was doing he was completely feckless.
Prof. ROTELLA: And even the huge punching power is open to question. He's a
big fella, and I guess if you stand right in front of him and let him wind up
he could knock out even a good boxer, but no self-respecting boxer's gonna
stand in front of him. I think he hit Holmes maybe twice flush in the whole
fight. And Holmes was 52 at that point, right? And Butterbean's in his 30s.
And it was just a case of, you know, when Holmes is 70 if he had a chance to
fight somebody like Butterbean, the same thing would happen. I mean, there's
a level of craft that's never gonna go away in a way that--even punching power
will go away eventually. But an ability to take care of yourself, block
punches, handle spacing, leverage, I think that will never go away.
DAVIES: You describe a moment in watching Larry Holmes in his training gym in
Easton where he's feeling some discomfort that might have been related to an
ill-timed meal. Tell us that story.
Prof. ROTELLA: This was a moment that happened fairly early on when I started
hanging out there. Holmes was sparring in the ring and he sort of came back
to his corner rubbing his stomach and he said something that I couldn't really
hear to his trainer. And his trainer said, `Go ahead,' and then stepped away
very briskly. And then Holmes, you know, to say it as plainly as possible,
stuck his hand down his throat and made himself throw up over and over and
over until his stomach was empty.
He had eaten lunch a little late and it was a little too close to sparring
time and his stomach was bothering him. It's one of those moments where, one,
you realize that you've entered a world in which a different set of rules
applies. And it was also a funny sort of a ringside moment because there were
some other people hanging around there, and we all looked at each other, like
smiling and grinning, as if we were all very pleased that he was doing this
because it's the right tool for the right job. You know, this is what you do
if you've eaten too late, you know, you stick your hand down your throat.
And it was on the one hand a kind of repellent moment but the more I thought
about it, it was a moment that actually helped pull me into thinking about
what is it that makes fight people tick, what is it that makes fight people
wanna continue doing what they do.
DAVIES: After he fills the bucket with vomit he washes his mouth off and it's
back to business in the ring.
Prof. ROTELLA: Yeah. And the other element of that moment that interested me
was that everybody in the ring--everybody in the gym, that is--stopped what
they were doing and watched him do this. And when he was done and said, `OK,
I'm getting back to work,' everybody went back to work with double the
diligence they had before, as if he had shamed them, or demonstrated to them,
`Remember, we're doing this with our bodies so that we can do this difficult
thing.' And everybody sort of just rushes back to work with redoubled energy.
And he goes back to training. And it's one of those moments when everything
in the gym stops and then starts again. And in that stop and then in that
start again something has just been revealed to you about how the fight world
DAVIES: Carlo Rotella, thanks very much for speaking with us.
Prof. ROTELLA: Thank you.
DAVIES: Carlo Rotella is the author of "Cut Time: An Education at the
DAVIES: We have a couple of closing program notes. We learned this week of
the injury to jockey Gary Stevens. He had just crossed the finish line at
the Arlington Million on Saturday when his horse spooked and Stevens fell into
the path of oncoming horses. Fortunately he suffered only a collapsed lung,
and appears to have no other serious injuries. Stevens had been a guest on
FRESH AIR just this past week. We wish him a speedy recovery.
And we also learned that songwriter Ed Townsend died last week at the age of
74. He wrote over 200 songs. His best known song is "Let's Get It On," which
Marvin Gaye recorded in 1973. The song was controversial because of its overt
sexual theme, but Ed Townsend insisted that the title was really about getting
on with life. And that's what we'll close with.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of "Let's Get It On")
Mr. MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) I've been fillin' time, baby, tryin' to hold back
this feelin' for so long. And if you feel like I feel, baby, then come on,
oh, come on. Whoo! Let's get it on. Oh, baby, let's get it on. Let's love,
baby. Let's get it on. Sugar, let's get it on. Whoo-hoo! We're all
sensitive people with so much to give, understanding, sugar. Since we got to
be, let's live. I love you. There's something wrong with me lovin' you,
baby, no, no. And giving yourself to me can never be wrong if the love is
true. Oh, baby.
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